What City Observatory did this week

The Cappuccino Congestion Index.  Media reports regularly regurgitate the largely phony claims about how traffic congestion costs travelers untold billions of dollars in wasted time. To illustrate how misleading these fictitious numbers are, we’ve used the same methodology and actual data to compute the value of time lost standing in line waiting to get coffee from your local barista. Just like roadways, your coffee shop is subject to peak demand, and when everyone else wants their caffeine fix at the same time, you can expect to queue up for yours.

Just as Starbucks and its local competitors don’t find it economical to expand their retail footprint and hire enough staff so that wait times go to zero (your coffee would be too expensive or their business would be unprofitable) it makes no sense to try to build enough roads so that there’s no delay. Ponder that the next time you’re waiting for your doppio macchiato.

Must read

San Francisco struggles with rezoning.  UC Davis Law Professor Chris Elmendorf has a thoughtful–and blistering–critique of San Francisco’s proposed up-zoning plan.  Here’s the background:  State law requires cities to zone for a share of their region’s future housing needs as part of a process called RHNA (regional housing needs analysis).  San Francisco’s share for the next decade is about 80,000 new homes.  In the past RHNA requirements were toothless, and cities could (and did) make plainly unrealistic assumptions about what could be developed based on zoning.  Amendments to state law give the state housing agency the ability to make tougher demands, including forcing cities to use much more realistic assumptions about how much land that is zoned for development will actually be developed in the next several years. Essentially, cities must evaluate the probability that up-zoned parcels actually get built on, and then assure there’s enough zoned capacity that the goal will be met.  But in the process of doing its analysis, Elmendorf argues, the city has dramatically exaggerated how many units will get built, and its policies counting on new housing getting built in locations that are simply uneconomic:

Finally, after all the massaging of numbers, San Francisco concludes that it ought to rezone for roughly 22,000 more homes, and that for fair-housing reasons, they should be located on west side of city. Some housing advocates are rejoicing.  But: in connection with its analysis of constraints, San Francisco hired a consultant for pro-forma analysis of different types of housing projects in different areas…and the consultant concluded that *nothing pencils out on the west side*.   On the basis of that study, the city planning department says that with current permitting process, impacts fees, exactions, and construction costs, the *only* kind of project that’s economically feasible is a 24+ story high-rise in city’s highest-demand neighborhoods. Yet San Francisco “plans” to meet its 22,000 unit shortfall (after hand-waving) by rezoning west-side corridors for 55′-85′ projects that per city’s own analysis would have *negative* rate of return. This is a cruel joke. Except it’s no joke.

New York’s Hotels-to-Affordable Housing Stumbles Over Zoning Requirements.  The Covid pandemic caused hotel occupancy to plummet, and created an opportunity to transform under-used hotel rooms into affordable housing.  New York City set aside $100 million to buy and renovate hotels, but so far, precious little has happened, according to Bloomberg.  The key problem:  zoning and building code requirements create delay, uncertainty and higher costs for potential conversions.  One organization looking to convert hotels reports:

Changing a property’s certificate of occupancy to residential use is time-consuming and triggers building code requirements that are costly or impossible to comply with, said Breaking Ground’s Rosen. . . . The HONDA Act also required that every room have a bathroom and kitchen or kitchenette, even though about 80% of the city’s 120,550 hotel rooms are in Manhattan and most are too small to accommodate even a small cooking area. Adding kitchens and complying with other building code requirements for residential buildings would require expensive renovations.

It’s a reminder that even where this is money for affordable housing, zoning and building regulations are still a huge barrier.  

No, we didn’t need to destroy our cities with urban freeways.  It’s well known that in the 1950s and 1960s, highway departments (and some cynical city leaders) chose to plow interstate highways through the middle of urban neighborhoods, especially those occupied by low income residents and people of color.  As we reported at City Observatory, even neighborhoods like Greenwood in Tulsa, which were literally bombed and burned by white radicals, managed to be rebuilt, only to be finally done-in by the construction of interstate highways.  The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah recounted this story, but then, largely excused it, saying “well, the freeways had to go somewhere.”  Tony Dutzik of The Frontier Group begs to disagree:

About halfway through detailing the history of racism in mid-century highway construction, Noah said something that caught me short:

“Now don’t get me wrong: The highways had to go somewhere, right?”

To which I immediately responded in my head: Did they? 

The answer is no. Plowing multi-lane expressways through the middle of American cities was a choice – and a colossally bad one. Those highways did more than just wipe out poor and minority communities or reinforce racial boundaries – they cut the literal heart out of many of our cities, slashed their tax base, accelerated the movement of people and wealth to the suburbs and cemented our dependence on cars, subjecting generations of Americans to health-threatening levels of air pollution and increasingly rapid climate change.

As Dutzik points out, virtually no European cities made this mistake, and the US cities that tore out urban freeways have built thriving neighborhoods in their place.  This tale of the supposed inevitability of urban freeways is evidence of the deep-seated bias in our national conversation, and as Dutzik puts it, a failure of imagination.  If we’re going to make progress on these issues, whether climate, or car-dependence or building affordable, inclusive cities, we have to overcome this kind of blinkered thinking about possibilities.

New Knowledge?

Editor’s note:  Our “New Knowledge” feature generally highlights recent research that we think our readers will find informative.  This week, as we do occasionally, we highlight some recent research about which we have questions.

School Closures and the Gentrification of the Black Metropolis. This paper looks at the correlation between school closures and neighborhood gentrification.  It purports to have found that the closing of schools in predominantly Black neighborhoods is associated with a higher probability of gentrification.

To start out with, it’s important to focus on the paper’s definition of gentrification:  if a low income census tract experienced any real increase in housing prices or an increase in its educational attainment in excess of the citywide average, it was considered to have gentrified.  The study reports that 29 percent of all eligible tracts gentrified.   That’s a high number, because its a low threshold:   this definition doesn’t necessarily signal a wholesale change in a neighborhood’s demographic composition.

Moreover, the study actually buries the lede about gentrification in Black communities:  consistent with other research, this study shows that predominantly Black and Hispanic neighborhoods are dramatically less likely to gentrify than otherwise similar white  neighborhoods.  Hispanic neighborhoods are 83 percent less likely that white neighborhoods to gentrify; Black neighborhoods are 54 percent less likely to gentrify.  The author’s finding is that Black neighborhoods with school closures are more likely to have experienced gentrification  than Black neighborhoods without school closures.  The effect, though statistically significant, is not large:  about 27 percent Black neighborhoods with school closures gentrify, compared to 19 percent of Black neighborhoods where schools don’t close.  Its still the case that White neighborhoods with (or without) school closures are more likely to gentrify than Black neighborhoods with school closures.

Francis A. Pearman, II & Danielle Marie Greene, School Closures and the Gentrification of the Black Metropolis, Stanford Center for Education Policy Analysis, CEPA Working Paper No. 21-02.  February 2022.